When we make the inevitable historical comparisons to these 2016-17 Golden State Warriors, most will naturally do so on the offensive side of the ball. This is understandable for several reasons, from the relative ease in finding offensive statistical comparison points to the simple visibility of the Dubs’ offensive dominance to even the casual fan. You don’t need advanced basketball knowledge to visually pick up how stunning this team is when they have the ball.
What about when they don’t have it, though? Interim coach Mike Brown recently offered a unique comparison point.
“I’ll never forget, back when I was the head coach of the Cavaliers, we were playing the old Pistons teams with Larry Brown coaching the team – they had a veteran team, you talk about Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and those guys. The thing that I felt that bothered us a lot when we played them [was] they talked their defense through quite a bit. One time down the floor, in a pick-and-roll situation, they’d switch it. Then the next time down the floor, they may blitz it. Next time down the floor, they may push it to the baseline. The following time, they may show. To be able to mix up your defense throughout the course of the game, whether it’s on ball screens or pindowns, is something that can be to the defense’s advantage – but it’s hard to do, in my opinion, unless you have a veteran team that has a good feel. When you talk about Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, to start with – David West inside. We have some intelligent veterans that are able to talk our defense through. So we’ll mix up our coverages. You watch us – we’ll switch sometimes, we won’t switch at other times.”
There’s a lot to digest there. If comparing your team directly to one of the consensus best defenses ever sounds a tad audacious, that’s because it is – but it’s also completely reasonable in this case.
There are some statistical similarities between those dominant mid-2000s Pistons and these Warriors, even beyond their mutual elite finishes year after year. Both teams forced a ton of turnovers and blocked a ton of shots, and both consistently rated near the bottom of the league in fouls committed, a dangerous combination.
But the real similarities went deeper, and Brown hits on them. In case you worry this is a bit of shameless self-promotion, know that opponents – including some who were around for those same Pistons teams – feel the same way.
“He’s comparing them to a great defense, and I would agree,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder, recently the victim of a Warriors blitzkrieg. “One of the guys on my staff was an assistant then, Igor Kokoshkov, so we’ve talked about those teams. We’ve talked about the balance of those teams. He’s talked about the communication, so it’s something I’m actually familiar with in a tangible way… You talk about a team with a high IQ, and you think about offense. [But] they have a defensive IQ that’s, you know, Mensa.”
Snyder’s Jazz got a healthy dose of the modern version of this in round two. The Warriors’ switching scheme on the ball has been relatively evident to the discerning hoops fan for a few years now, but they do it just as well away from the ball:
That play is a Jazz staple, a simple little action that nonetheless confounds many unprepared defenses. They begin in a HORNS alignment (a ball-handler at the top of the key, with two players in screening positions at both elbows), and Gordon Hayward comes up as if to set a screen for ball-handler Shelvin Mack:
Before he gets there, though, Hayward slips the screen and immediately takes a new flare screen from Rudy Gobert – the idea is to get Hayward’s man, Klay Thompson in this case, to lean too far the wrong way anticipating the ball screen.
Normally, this is tough for the defense. If the big man guarding Gobert doesn’t recognize what’s happening, Hayward gets a wide open three. Even if the big does recognize it and jumps out to Hayward, the defense often gives up an open rolling lane to Gobert amid the confusion. Best case scenario, the defense usually ends up with a slower big man switched onto Hayward, who can then go to work.
Not for the Warriors, though. They simply switch Draymond Green, a human Swiss Army knife, onto Hayward and Thompson onto Gobert, and the play is dead. With half the shot clock already gone, the Warriors aren’t worried about Thompson’s ability to handle the bigger Gobert for a few seconds, especially with a smart and long helping scheme around him. Thompson even has the savvy to sag way off Gobert and grab the steal during Hayward’s resulting drive.
Some of what Brown is talking about is simply personnel, and Green is the foundation. He’s long drawn comparisons to both of the anchors for those Pistons teams.
These comparisons aren’t new, of course. The similarities to Ben Wallace are pretty obvious, from an undersized stature to an emotional flare for the dramatic. Green has outwardly discussed (and written about) the inspiration he’s drawn from the Pistons’ former afro-toting defensive star, and even if they differ in their precise strengths and roles, it’s easy to see. The comparisons to Rasheed are perhaps less common, but just as apt.
“Ben Wallace is a little different anchoring those defenses, but the communication on the perimeter, the ability to switch,” Snyder said. “I think Rasheed Wallace was probably one of the great defensive communicators that’s ever played the game. But that was something, at least according to Igor too, that we’ve discussed – I look at that and I see Draymond Green a little bit. His ability to communicate and kind of orchestrate.”
Like with many things, we think of “freedom” for elite players almost exclusively on the offensive end – the better a guy is, the more leeway he has to take matters into his own hands and deviate from the plan to help the team. The Warriors “plan” less than virtually anyone, playing through feel far more often, but that same theme is still evident for Draymond on the defensive end.
“He basically has carte blanche, for the most part,” Brown said. “Just like Steph – if he wants to cross halfcourt and pull it from 55 feet, he can do the same. You have guys that are effective in certain areas of the game – you kind of give them a little bit more freedom or rope to do what they can do to help us win the ballgame.”
Green sets the baseline, but the whole thing still wouldn’t have the same overall effect without several other high-IQ guys on the court at all times. With the freedom to make changes on the fly and the hyper-intelligent Green constantly barking out little hints, the Warriors will cycle through each of several coverages Brown mentioned – all within a given game, quarter or even a single sequence.
Here’s David West showing Mack a quick blitz when it looks like Mack might have a step on his man, Ian Clark. Notice how seamlessly Green stays within reach of Gobert, temporarily free as the roll man, before leaping back out to corral his own man, Joe Johnson. Then West makes a great individual play to rip the ball from Gobert for a steal.
Sometimes, they’ll show the blitz, but audible out of it within instants. West is all set to make the same play here, but the moment he notices Green getting over the ball screen more easily than expected, West scurries back to his man and gives Draymond all the time he needs to jack the rock from a befuddled Johnson.
They don’t always need to be so aggressive, though, and opposing personnel plays a big role. When Utah’s Joe Ingles was the ball-handler in pick-and-roll sets, for instance, the Warriors generally played a softer coverage: a brief show by the big man, but then a drop back.
The Dubs know Ingles isn’t much of a threat to pull up from midrange, and prefers to either pass or find the layup as long as they keep him from launching a three. JaVale McGee shows him just enough of a body to stop the triple, but then relaxes, allowing Iguodala to stay home on Hayward in the corner and grab the steal when Ingles anticipates more middle help from Iggy:
Hell, they’ll mix it up within the same play depending on how well the screen was set. Look at how Durant and West are all set to play a basic drop-back scheme here on a Johnson-Gobert pick-and-roll, but when Gobert’s second try at the screen is much more effective, West aborts the plan and simply switches onto him, generating yet another turnover.
The Warriors are one of just a handful of teams since those Pistons capable of playing this way based on personnel, but make no mistake about one thing: It takes so much more than just a bunch of long, versatile guys to do this. The collective IQ for this team defense is among the highest in recent memory, and maybe in the game’s history.
Making it even more remarkable is the lack of a traditional rim protector on the floor at virtually all times. McGee has the profile, but he’s a wild jumper who can be moved out of position with basic craft, and he commits way too many goaltends and no-chance leaps that put him out of position. Zaza Pachulia is one of the worst rim protectors in the league for his size.
That really only leaves Green (an elite and thoroughly underrated rim protector, but not in the traditional sense), West (a converted power forward) and Durant, who took a big defensive leap this season that largely went unnoticed amid several other bigger storylines. Durant blocked a higher percentage of opponent shots this year than ever before, and allowed a respectable opponent percentage at the rim, per SportVU figures.
“Just me personally, I’ve never been a huge believer in trying to go get a shot-blocker,” Brown said. “If you have one, great. But I feel like if you have guys who are intelligent, guys who are willing to cover for one another, guys who understand the rule of verticality, then in my opinion, that’s just as good as going and getting a guy that can block shots. And I think all of our guys have a good feel for using the rule of verticality, and then covering for one another.”
Brown’s personal beliefs aside, this is the largest difference between this group and those Pistons defenses.
Those teams had Ben Wallace in a Draymond-ish role, providing a mixture of help-side and on-ball rim protection. But they also had Rasheed as the final line of defense in an era where the power of the three-pointer wasn’t yet fully realized, and the list of bigs who could ever reliably move Rasheed away from his post in the paint was basically Dirk Nowitzki and no one else.
That the Warriors are drawing these comparisons, and that they aren’t ludicrous, is an even greater feat within this context. There’s no Sheed to clean up mistakes; even if there was, there are so many more matchups that could cause problems for these types in today’s game. The biggest area where the two elite defenses diverge is probably the single most impressive part of this Warriors group.
As the playoffs wear on, there’s a real chance these comparisons become the only decent ones left. There just aren’t any contemporary analogies that make sense, or capture the full force of what this team does on both ends. Any team that manages an unlikely four victories in seven over this group will not only have beaten a historically great attack, but also one of the smartest and most unique defenses ever assembled.
NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break
After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.
For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.
Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.
In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.
As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.
“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.
“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”
But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.
Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.
With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.
Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.
Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.
This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.
“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”
Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.
Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.
Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.
“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”
Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.
“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”
And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.
NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved
It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.
The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.
On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.
Oklahoma City has agreed to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round pick to Atlanta for point guard Dennis Schroder and Mike Muscala, league sources tell ESPN. Anthony will be waived, and he will join team of his choice. Rockets are frontrunner.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 19, 2018
It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.
While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.
With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.
For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.
Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.
For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.
The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.
While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.
Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.
For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.
Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.
As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.
NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge
Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.
Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.
Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.
“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”
Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.
July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists
Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.
“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”
On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.
“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”
Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.
“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”
In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.
“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”
When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.
In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.